French duo Alassane Plea and Marcus Thuram are currently firing on all cylinders for Borussia Mönchengladbach, bringing a touch of 'je ne sais quoi' to the Foals' quest to return to the UEFA Champions League in 2020/21.
Gladbach's comprehensive 4-1 win over Union Berlin on Matchday 29 may have taken place some 125 miles from the French border, but there was more than a hint of Gallic flair to a performance which all but guarantees Marco Rose's side a place in Europe next term. They now sit fourth in the table, just ahead of Bayer Leverkusen on goal difference and a comfortable 14 points clear of Wolfsburg in sixth.
Plea, 27, and Thuram, 22, were the chief architects of the Union victory, scoring three of their team's four goals. Plea, demonstrating the altruism that made him such an excellent foil for Mario Balotelli back in his Nice days, provided assists for Thuram's two goals either side of the interval, before getting on the scoresheet himself in the second half. Both players are now into double figures for the campaign, with their 20 goals accounting for over a third of Gladbach's Bundesliga tally (57).
Watch: Highlights from Gladbach's 4-1 win over Union!
Ramy Bensebaini, the Algeria left-back who – like Plea and Thuram – made his name in Ligue 1, set up the former's goal, while the latter led the tributes when Mamadou Doucoure, the former captain of the Paris Saint-Germain U19s, finally made an emotional Bundesliga debut for the Foals after four long, injury-plagued seasons. A day of celebration for Gladbach's French-speaking contingent, with Plea and Thuram once again taking centre stage.
"Both of them have unbelievable quality and they showed that against Union," enthused teammate Matthias Ginter. "They were ice cool in front of goal. We're happy to have players like them in our squad."
Plenty of French players have crossed the Rhine to try their luck in the Bundesliga, but the main success stories have plied their trade with Bayern Munich: Bixente Lizarazu in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and Franck Ribery between 2007 and 2019. Even today, the Bavarian giants have five Frenchmen in their senior squad, including four-time Bundesliga champion Kingsley Coman and FIFA World Cup winners Benjamin Pavard, Lucas Hernandez and Corentin Tolisso. Plea and Thuram are now hoping to write a new chapter with the Foals.
Plea arrived in North Rhine-Westphalia a year before Thuram, in summer 2018, and made an instant impact; after scoring a hat-trick in a DFB Cup demolition of Hastedt (11-1), he plundered eight goals in his first 11 Bundesliga outings. He even savoured the rare pleasure of being on the winning side at the Allianz Arena, scoring in Gladbach's 3-0 win at Bayern that October. After two seasons in the wilderness – finishing ninth in 2016/17 and 2017/18 – the Foals came fifth in 2018/19, thanks in no small part to Plea's 15 goals in all competitions.
In his first season, Plea shared goalscoring duties with Thorgan Hazard, then the side's key creative outlet. The Belgian finished the Bundesliga campaign with 10 goals and 10 assists, while Plea had 12 goals and four assists. Since Hazard's departure for Borussia Dortmund and the arrival of Thuram from Guingamp, however, Plea has become equal parts taker and maker, following in Hazard's footsteps and racking up 10 goals and 10 assists with five games still to play.
The Lille native is one of just four men in Europe's top five leagues – along with fellow Bundesliga stars Jadon Sancho and Serge Gnabry, plus Barcelona's Lionel Messi – to have reached double figures for goals and assists this term. And Thuram isn't far behind, currently sitting pretty on 10 goals and eight assists.
Better known for many years as the son of France legend Lilian, Thuram is rapidly stepping out of his father's shadow and becoming a star in his own right. As well as being able to rely on parental pearls of wisdom, he may look to the career path of another former Guingamp player for inspiration: Didier Drogba, who enjoyed domestic and continental glory and famously broke Bayern hearts in the 2011/12 Champions League final.
It helps that Thuram, described by his father as "a ray of sunshine", has quickly settled into the Gladbach stable with the help of his fellow Francophones: Plea, Bensebaini, Doucoure and Ibrahima Traore. Not bad for a man who admits that he couldn't even pronounce Borussia Mönchengladbach when he first discovered the club playing FIFA with his brother!
"They're all good friends of mine and we're glad to have one another," he admitted. "I really missed them during these last weeks with no team training. Borussia has now become a home for me. I rate my time here so far based on the success of the team. It's been good, but we can do even better still."
Like Plea, Thuram didn't need long to start making his mark. He netted in the early rounds of the DFB Cup – victory over Sandhausen and defeat to Dortmund – and notched his first six Bundesliga goals in the space of nine games during the Hinrunde. He has featured in every single competitive outing this term, and his training sessions with Plea at the end of lockdown appear to be bearing fruit; they've put away six goals in four games since the restart.
The attacking duo have certainly flourished under Rose, dovetailing perfectly in a 4-3-3 that usually sees the former assume his preferred central role and the latter line up on the left. The pair have been finding each other with their eyes closed and are happy to mix things up: Plea crossed from the left for Thuram's first goal against Union, and from the right for the second, with his younger teammate twice ghosting into an ideal position to score.
"Alassane is a bit older than me and has more experience," Thuram recently told Sport Bild. "We're always having a laugh, we're both jokers, and we get along really well on the pitch. What's great is that we have a very similar way of thinking when it comes to football."
Watch: Thuram happy to be playing with his "friends" Plea and Embolo
The attacking chemistry between the two Frenchmen has clearly improved Gladbach's prospects. The Foals even spent two months at the top of the Bundesliga during the autumn, a first since the start of 2011/12. Their hopes of a long-awaited sixth title – and first since 1976/77 – may now have faded, but Plea, Thuram and Co. are still determined to secure a return to the Champions League after a three-season absence.
"I just hope that we win a lot of games, put in some great performances, and at the end of it all, qualify for Europe," Plea said before the Rückrunde. "We want to improve on last season at the very least. We have a good team with plenty of quality and a great coach to back that up, who prepares us so well for every game. Now it's down to us to give the best performances we can every weekend when we step out on that pitch."
Gladbach are likely to go into four of their five remaining fixtures as favourites: trips to Freiburg and Paderborn and home meetings with Wolfsburg and Hertha Berlin. There is also the small matter of a trip to their old friends Bayern on 13 June – when an unprecedented eighth straight title could be within the hosts' grasp – but then again, the Foals boast one of the Bundesliga's better records at the Allianz. With just four points separating second and fifth place, they will also be keeping a close eye on their Champions League rivals, especially with RB Leipzig hosting Dortmund on the penultimate day.
If Gladbach do end up claiming a top-four spot, you can all but guarantee that their free-scoring French duo will have played a crucial role in making it happen. Plea and Thuram are seeing La vie en Rose as they drive the Foals on towards European qualification, and this may be only the beginning of their prolific partnership.